Return To Rasa Island & A Visit to the Philippine Cockatoo Monitoring Project

After a brief sunset visit to see the Philippine Cockatoos roost for the night, now we would have the chance to see them wake up and fly to the mainland. Wake up call was bright and early-4:30am so we would reach the island by dawn. Ina opted to sleep a bit more so it was just Ivy and me this time. Benito was waiting right on time and we were able to get a bit closer to the roosting site. Although it is possible to land at certain times of the year, they prefer not to as it disturbs nesting and breeding Katala. We arrived around 5:30am, set anchor and waited for the cockatoos to wake up. There were signs of stirring about half an hour later as dawn broke and the sky grew lighter. They were pretty lazy and took their time but gradually more and more Katala would wake up, fly between the trees looking for their friends and of course making noise!

Wakey wakey Cockatoos!

They flew back to the mainland in small flocks.  We followed in the boat.

Back on the mainland we took a tuktuk to the feeding site.

I sat in the gently rocking boat trying to get photos and video as they flew around the roosting site.  They didn’t linger, hungry cockatoos want to eat so they flew off to foraging grounds on the island and mainland.  As we drove back, I could see several pairs heading to Narra.

We landed ashore and got the tuk-tuk to a small road in the middle of the village surrounded by family homes.  This was where I got to see the Katala much closer and get better photos.

A good shot of the red vents.

This is the Katala Foundation’s monitoring project where the locals keep track of the cockatoos.  There were around 5 or 6 flying between trees in people’s backyards. Ivy said that the people don’t mind if tourists with the Katala Foundation enter their backyards to see the birds. The Philippine cockatoo feeds on seeds, and, to an extent, on fruits, flowers, buds and nectar. The species is very adaptable and even forages on crops, particularly rice in a half-ripe stage and corn. Therefore the cockatoo was formerly regarded as a pest. Thanks to the Katala Foundation, the locals now treasure their endemic bird and even assist in monitoring the preferred feeding trees and keep logs of Katala visits. We enjoyed watching them for about an hour, then they flew off. Ivy showed me the seed pods they eat and some of the log books.

Malunga seed pods left over from the cockatoos.

One of the most important aspect of any bird conservation program is to get the local people involved and the Katala Foundation is one of several conservation programs sponsored by Loro Parque Fundacion . They organize schools, festivals, field trips and build community pride in the Katala. Annual festivals feature people dressing in Katala costumes! For more information on the Katala Foundation, booking an eco-tour or learning more about these rare cockatoos, please visit their website.

My very shaky video of our trip, it does get better towards the end with some close-ups.  Back then, I think I had a Canon450D with 55-250mm lens.

After our visit, we caught a minibus back to Puerto Princesa.  Since we were larger than the locals, we paid for 3 seats to be more comfortable, it was still really cheap.

A Visit To Rasa Island, Palawan

This is a historical report of a trip we did in Sept 2010, before I started blogging so the details aren’t as good as my more recent trips.  You can organize a similar trip with the Katala Foundation.

The lush tropical island of Palawan, Philippines is well known as a location for spectacular diving in the northern resort of El Nido.  Though many tourists make the trek up north, very few head south to see the rare feathered gems on the private Rasa Island near the small town of Narra.  This is the stronghold of the few remaining Red-vented Philippine Cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia) .  The endemic Philippine or Red-vented cockatoo is a small psittacine with a helmet crest and red undertail coverts. The white plumage is extremely conspicuous in flight and in the foliage of the lowland dipterocarp and mangrove forest habitats. It is 12.2 inches long and has an 8.6 inches wingspan. The Katala as it is locally called is a social species which roosts, feeds, and flies in noisy groups.  Their habitat is lowland, riverine, and mangrove forests but may be found in forest edge and open fields as well as high in the mountains. Can be seen singly or in flocks of up to 30 or more.  Recent estimates by Widmann (2001) suggest 1000 individuals left in the wild! Rasa probably holds the highest population density with 200 recorded individuals.

Getting here is quite an adventure in itself.  First you need to get to Manila, then get a short domestic flight to Puerto Princesa.  We were lucky enough to be met by Dr. Sabine Schoppe from the Katala Foundation who lives in Puerto Princesa.  We stopped at a nearby restaurant for a quick chat, then she dropped us at the bus station.  Small shuttle vans leave when full direct to Narra and are comfortable.  It’s about a 3 hour drive through lush farmland and small villages, passing the Iwahig prison farm.  Indira Dayang Lacerna-Widmann, the Program Manager for the Katala Foundation had booked us into a small hotel-the Gorayan, and organized a guide for us.  She had meant to meet us personally but found out she would be in Australia at the time of our visit.

We then rode through the town in a tuktuk to the beach.

Later that afternoon, our guide Ivy met us and had us fill out some paperwork and pay the fees for conservation, guide and boat. She’s a lovely lady full of enthusiasm for the cockatoos and very friendly and helpful. The boat launch site was a few km away so she brought a tuk-tuk for us and she rode her moped. The boat captain, Benito was waiting for us with a small wooden boat. We got in carefully-camera gear and all and headed out towards Rasa Island. Ivy explained that Benito had once been a poacher but he’s now a forest warden to guard the Katala and provide boat transport for eco-tourists. The core project of the Philippine Cockatoo Conservation Programme is a wardens scheme to guard the cockatoos, particularly during the breeding season. Former poachers were recruited as wildlife wardens because of their profound knowledge of the species. They are indigenous people of Palawan: the Pala’wan from the south, the Tagbanua tribes and the Cuyunin from the northern part of the province. He got as close to the island as possible given the tides, set anchor and proceeded to fish while we waited.

Wait we did, the Katala weren’t going to show up early just because a couple of Aussies had flown out there to see them! Around 6:10pm, we could hear them approaching. They had been out foraging all day, some on Rasa and some on the mainland. A few flew in at first and clung to the trees near the bank squawking noisily as cockatoos do. Then more and more and suddenly the darkening sky was full of them! Although we were pretty far away in the boat, we could see mostly the silhouettes of the small cockatoos who are similar in size to Aussie Corellas. They flew from tree to tree, looking for the best perch for the evening until the sky was dark and they quieted down for the night.

.We went back to shore, noticing several fishing boats with flickering lights along the way. Ivy brought us back to the hotel and we had dinner in a nearby restaurant/karaoke bar. Some of the locals turned out to have beautiful voices! They encouraged me (as a visitor) to have a go, I proceeded to murder Simple Mind’s “Don’t You Forget About Me” and got good natured applause from the very kind locals. Then I was glad to hand the mike back!.

Planning A Birding Trip To The Philippines

The Philippines archipelago has an astounding mix of more than 600 species of birds and  of these almost 200 species are endemic.  This was a very brief visit we made back in September 2010 while enroute to the World Parrot Conference at Loro Parque.  Some of the details are hazy but I do have plenty of photos.  Anyway, you can be sure the Philippines is on my list for future trips!

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

With so much on offer, you have to do lots of research online to find out your best chances of seeing the species you really want to see.  I always check trip reports on Surfbirds and more recently added Cloudbirders to that.  Xeno-canto has mapped locations where birders took sound clips of many species so that can pinpoint them even more.

I also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more.  The itineraries can provide inspiration for your own or you may decide that it is easier to just join a tour.  They are not cheap but they do have excellent guides to help you find a lot more birds.

Independent birders have a lot of resources too.  Have a look at these websites.

Birdwatch Philippines

EBON

Katala Foundation

 

HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY

This was back in the early days of my birding career.  I was prioritizing parrots, knowing that there would actually be lots of different bird species in the same habitats.  First I contacted the Katala Foundation to see the #1 target, the Philippine Cockatoo.  Details are on their flyer and the costs are extremely reasonable.  Then I knew there were other parrots on Palawan such as some Racket-tail Parrots and Blue-naped Parrots.  Then I squeezed in a stop to Mt Makiling to hunt for Guiabero Parrots.

This will be covered in detail as the report progresses.

HOW I BOOKED OUR FLIGHTS

I used American Airlines miles for

BNE-HKG-MNL-HKG-LHR (CX) -MAD-TFN (IB).  I don’t recall what it cost then (it was much cheaper) but now it would cost 30k in Y or 40k in J for the BNE-MNL segments and 35k in Y or 75k in J for the MNL-TFN segments.  We were in Y as I hadn’t yet honed my travel-hacking skills to where we could get J. The flights were booked around the end of 2009.

From there, we had cheap paid tickets TFN-MAD-RAK (Marrakesh side trip), then United miles back to Australia via IST & BKK on TK & TG.

The one thing to be careful of is that we couldn’t just issue a MNL-Europe award from BNE.  We would have had to walk into an AA office and pick up the tickets in person.  However as an open jaw award, we could have this routing.

LOGISTICS

We flew on Cebu Pacific from Manila to Puerto Princesa where a rep from the Katala Foundation met us and took us to the minibus for Narra.  We took another minibus back to Puerto Princesa, then changed to a larger bus for the Sabang trip.

Back on the mainland, we took a taxi to the bus station and a bus that dropped us at Mt Makiling.  Given that this trip was 6.5 years ago, I don’t recall the details, we may have had another taxi from the bus stop to Mt Makiling.

WHEN TO GO

This wasn’t a conscious decision as this trip was part of a longer trip including Spain (Loro Parque conference) so we had to go in September.  We did cop some rain as a result but nothing we could do but try.

Weather2Travel is my go-to site for weather planning.  On a future trip, I’d be looking at Feb, March, April (avoiding Easter holidays).

VISAS

The citizens of most countries that are likely to be reading this blog can enter the Philippines for at least a month (or 3) visa free.  See details here.

ACCOMMODATION

During the layovers in Manila, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza because it was on the IHG Pointbreaks list and only cost 5000 points.  We stayed at very small hotels in Narra to see the Philippine Cockatoos, Subang for the Puerto Princesa Subterranean NP and Puerto Princesa.  Back on the mainland, we had an overnight in yet another small guesthouse in Mt Makiling.  None of these were booked in advance, we just rocked up.  If you want to have something booked in advance, it’s worth looking on  Pointshound  or  Rocketmiles to maximize bonus miles.  Each property will be reviewed in the appropriate section of the trip report.

Getting To The Philippines With Airline Miles

Most frequent flier programs place the Philippines into the South-east Asia region.  I already have a blog with my recommendations for which programs to join if you are new to the world of miles and points.

The major gateway city is Manilia (MNL) from which you can get domestic flights throughout the country.    Once you have been in the miles and points game for awhile, you will get a feel for which airline to use where but if you are just starting out Wikipedia will show you all the airlines that fly into Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

ONE WORLD OPTIONS

From North America you can use Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines or Malaysian via their respective hubs.

From South America there are no direct flights so you must go via Europe or the USA.

From Australia and New Zealand you can use Qantas, Malaysian, Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines.

From UK and Europe you can use Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Qatar Airways or Malaysian via their respective hubs.

From Asia or Africa you can use Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Qatar Airways or Malaysian via their respective hubs.

STAR ALLIANCE OPTIONS

From North America you can use Air China, ANA, Asiana, Eva, Singapore, Thai or United via their respective hubs.  You may need more than one airline to connect.

From South America there are no direct flights so you must go via Europe or the USA.

From Europe you can use Air China, ANA, Asiana, Eva, Singapore, Turkish or Thai via their respective hubs.

From Australia and New Zealand you can use Air China, ANA, Asiana, Eva, Singapore, or Thai via their respective hubs.

From Africa you can use Ethiopian, Singapore, Turkish or Thai via their respective hubs.

From other Asian countries there are numerous non-stops on Air China, ANA, Asian, Eva, Singapore and Thai.

SKYTEAM OPTIONS

From North America you can use China Airlines or Delta.

From South America there are no direct flights so you must go via Europe or the USA.

From Europe you can use China Airlines or KLM.

From Australia and Africa there are no direct flights, you’d best try another alliance or LCC.

NON-ALLIANCE AIRLINES

Noteable non-alliance airlines who may be partnered with you program to check out include:

Air Asia (low cost carrier)

Cebu Pacific (low cost carrier)

Emirates (has individual partners but no alliances).

Etihad (has individual partners but no alliances).

Philippine Airlines (has individual partners but no alliances).

HOW MANY MILES WILL IT COST?

Every airline member of the 3 main alliances has it’s own frequent flier program.  They often have alliances with other airlines outside the program.  I have made some reference charts for the airline alliances and I strongly recommend that you check out the program of the airline in your country and the USA based partners of each program as the USA airlines tend to have the most lucrative bonuses.  Americans can get very generous credit card bonuses.  Details of credit card partners (and other partners) will be on each airline’s website, however often there are more lucrative sign up bonuses.  Details are usually posted in the Flyer Talk thread so I strongly suggest you read this thread and the Miles Buzz forum before you apply for any cards just in case a better bonus has been offered.  I don’t have any affiliate links and I recommend you do extensive research on your own when applying for airline credit cards.

USING ONE WORLD

AMERICAN AIRLINES

No matter where you live, frequent flyer programs based in the USA usually offer the best deals but it’s still a good idea to look at other members of the alliance.  Try to avoid carriers that charge a fuel surcharge.  Looking at AA’s award chart, we can see that Manila is in Asia 2 Region.

So let’s look at the chart.  AA no longer has all zones on one convenient chart so you need to look at the website for the region you are departing from.  You will notice there are taxes and fees with certain routes and that the awards are priced as one way trips.

We can see that a South Pacific to Asia 2 award will cost 30,000 miles each way (60,000 round trip) in economy, 40,000 (80,000 round trip) in business class and 50,000 each way (100,000 round trip in first class.  This is an excellent use of AA miles for Aussies!

If you are based in North America, economy will cost 37,500  each way (75,000 round trip), business class  is 70,000 each way (140,000 round trip) and first is 110,000 each way or 220,000 round trip.  You would be flying on AA or LATAM.

AVIOS (BA OR IB)

Avios can be a great bargain for shorter flights.  The awards are priced by distance flown per segment rather than zone to zone.

Avios

Avios chart

In my opinion, Avios are best used for multi-destination Asian trips.  The 3 main hubs are Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo.  Using the Great Circle Mapper, we can see that Hong Kong at 711 miles is in Zone 2, Kuala Lumpur at 1546 miles and Tokyo at 1893 miles both fall into Zone 3.

 

QANTAS FREQUENT FLYER

For Qantas, it is easiest to use their points calculator to see how many points you need, then look for availability.  A random check on BNE-MNL shows good availability via HKG on CX for 42,000 in Y or 63,000 in Premium Economy.  I didn’t have much luck finding J but this would be an extremely popular route for Aussies!

 

If you are based somewhere else, leave a comment if you don’t understand this part and I will help you out.  Meanwhile, here is a reference list for other One World carriers.

USING STAR ALLIANCE

United, Avianca and Singapore are probably the most common Star Alliance programs in use because of good credit card deals and buy miles promos.

UNITED AIRLINES

United Airlines is a USA based carrier that offers one way awards on its own flights and other Star Alliance carriers.  Due to the size of their award chart, I can’t paste it here so will link to it and give examples.  For example Denver to Manila has limited availability on several dates which I picked at random.  They are colour coded for economy, business/first or all three classes.  Make sure you scroll all the way down to see all the options.

AVIANCA TACA LIFEMILES

Lifemiles has some very attractive promos to buy and share miles.  While this doesn’t give you a free trip, it can greatly reduce the cost of a trip especially if you are after business or first class awards.  You need to be an existing member of Lifemiles when they announce  a promo so join now if you haven’t already.  Use their calculator to get an idea of award costs.  This will be a range which depends on class and any promos. They have a Star Alliance Award chart and you can see that Manila is in the North Asia chart.  The chart shows one-way awards.

 

SINGAPORE AIRLINES

SQ miles have become much easier to get in recent years.  Americans can use Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thank You, Amex Membership Rewards.  Aussies can use the Australian Amex Membership Rewards.  Everyone can use SPG.  Award rates have/will be increased but thankfully fuel surcharges are gone which makes this an attractive Star Alliance partner for Manila.

The Phillippines is in Zone 3 but the chart is huge so please view it on their site.

I don’t use all the programs that are out there but these are the most commonly used programs by travel hackers in the USA and Australia so do some research to see which one works for you!  Bear in mind that the tickets are not completely free, there is usually a booking fee of $25-50 and various taxes, but you would have to pay the taxes whether you pay cash or miles for the ticket in any case.

WHAT ABOUT JUST PAYING CASH (WELL, CREDIT CARD)?

Being an Aussie, I really can’t NOT mention Air Asia.  They have frequent sales and serve several airports in Australia.  You transfer in KUL if you’re headed to Manila, Cebu or Kalibo-Boracay.  This looks really good!

 

 

 

 

Philippine Airlines Monday Madness Sale

HT:  UPGRD Blog

The Philipines has much to offer eco-tourists, especially birders and now it’s cheaper to get there.  UPGRD has the details on their blog and the fares between Australia and Manila look pretty good!  The YQ’s are a bit high but I priced out a sample and it was less than the website says.  The domestic flights look like a good deal but I was disappointed that they don’t offer Manila – Puerto Princessa (Palawan) which is home to the rare Katala Philippine Cockatoo which I got to see in Sept 2010.  They will be changing the offers every week so check back as you could get lucky next time!

.

 

 

 

Getting To South-East Asia With Frequent Flyer Miles

The countries of South-East Asia’s bird populations are as colourful and diverse as you could expect from this culturally rich region.  let’s concentrate on the countries which are classified as “South-East Asia” by the frequent flyer programs and have great birding and eco-tourism opportunities such as (alphabetically) Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.  If you are married to or involved with a non-birding partner, this is a great region to plan a trip to as they will find plenty to do while you are off chasing birds.   Unfortunately, being so far from everywhere except Australia, it can be very expensive to get there whether you use miles or cash.  Let’s look at a few options.

South-East Asia

 

ONE WORLD ALLIANCE

 

AMERICAN AADVANTAGE

For most people, joining American Airline’s AAdvantage will be the best option.  They have quite a few credit card options to quickly build your miles stash and a few partners such as E-Rewards and various hotels where you can transfer points in.  The region is called “Asia Zone 2” on this chart and includes Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Guam, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Saipan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam.  Airlines which serve this area include Cathay Pacific and Qantas with Malaysian Airlines, Sri Lankan Airlines and Qatar Airways joining very soon.

Peru Award2

These figures are one-way so double if you want a round trip.  The nice thing about AAdvantage is the flexibility, you may choose to go one way in economy and one way in business, or do an open jaw where you fly into Bali (DPS)  for example and out of Bangkok (BKK).   Please note that awards between South-East Asia and South America Zones 1 & 2 are not available so if you want a route like that you will have to join up two awards such as Asia-North America and North America – South America.

USA and Canada:  Each way is 35,000 economy;  55,000 business; 72,500 first.  You can use Qantas, Cathay Pacific, and Malaysian  but there are no stopovers allowed.

UK and Europe:  Each way is 35,000 economy; 52,500 business; 70,000 first.  You can use British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Etihad or (coming soon) Malaysian Airlines and SriLankan Airlines; or use Finnair, Air Berlin or Iberia to get to Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong or anywhere Qantas flies.

Australia and New Zealand:  Each way is 25,000 economy; 35,000 business; 45,000 first.  You can use Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian.

QANTAS

For Aussies who have easy access to Qantas points via their employer or Everyday Rewards, it’s worth checking out QF’s awards to South-East Asia.  Use their points calculator as the awards are distance based, not by country.  A long distance award such as Brisbane – Bangkok will cost more than a short one like Darwin – Denpasar/Bali.  The awards look expensive compared to AA, UA and US but if you got your points for free, might as well enjoy them!

Qantas Awards

AVIOS (BRITISH AIRWAYS AND IBERIA)

By the time you read this, Malaysian will have joined One World, though the booking engine may not be online yet.  Look for bargains in one way awards between Kuala Lumpur and nearby cities such as Singapore, Jakarta, Bali, Bangkok, Vientiane and Manila.   In the examples below, the awards will range from 4500 Avios to 10,000 Avios.